The Last Judge

Samuel, a Prophet and a Judge

To obey is better than sacrifice.—1 Samuel 15:22.

Robert Whittaker

Although two books in our common version Old Testament are named after .Samuel, he wrote neither. Perhaps this is why in the Septuagint the books are named Kings I and II, while Kings III and IV are what we know as first and second Kings. Samuel lived in the transition period between the deliverers of Israel called judges, and the anointed kings of Israel. As God’s dedicated servant, he functioned in a dual role of prophet and judge.


Samuel was an Ephraimite, born to Elkanah and Hannah. Elkanah had another wife, Peninnah, who bore him at least four children, but it was Hannah whom he loved most. Hannah, long-time barren, was under duress from her rival Peninnah. In this we see the wisdom of the higher standard of marriage in New Testament times: one woman, one man.

Elkanah was a religious man and made a yearly pilgrimage to Shiloh, a place in Ephraim where the tabernacle was pitched. This annual pilgrimage was required of every Israelite male at Passover, Pentecost, and the Feast of Tabernacles. Elkanah would take his whole family with him. On one poignant visit Eli the priest noticed Hannah’s unusual behavior: her lips were moving but no words came out. He mistook her actions for being drunk, so much so that he rebuked her. We sometimes make a similar mistake in rebuking our brethren. “By their fruits ye shall know them” (Matthew 7:20), said Jesus, but fruit is of gradual development and manifests itself in a continuous ripening or progression in a right or wrong moral condition. Therefore, judgment needs to be withheld until the situation more clearly manifests the fruitage.

Hannah explained to Eli that she was praying out of grief but did not give the details. Eli, realizing his error, responded with a blessing, “May the God of Israel grant you what you have asked of him” (1 Samuel 1:17, NIV) and as high priest his words carried authority from God. As members of a royal priesthood our words carry authority also, and so we are admonished to speak as the oracles of God (1 Peter 4:11). Hannah took comfort in his words for we read that she then “ate something, and her face was no longer downcast” (1 Samuel 1:18, NIV) She had heard words of hope and her faith laid hold on this hope. So with us, “faith cometh by hearing, and hearing by the word of God” (Romans 10:17).

In her prayer to Yahweh, Hannah made a vow that if the Lord gave her a son, she would give him back to the Lord for all the days of his life and that no razor would ever be used on his head. This was a Nazarite vow for life. Samuel’s hair would have grown quite long and heavy as he matured. He would have been unmistakably marked as one consecrated to Yahweh’s service. This was also true of the apostle Paul who speaks of bearing the marks of the Lord Jesus in his body. Paul’s life bore witness to his dedication and so with us, as we age, our manner of life should give evidence that we have been with Jesus and learned of him.

It is unusual that a parent could make a vow regarding the future direction of a child, but if we consider it from the viewpoint of Hannah and apply the vow only to what she would do, all seems harmonious. She would give her son to the Lord’s service while he was still under age to make such decisions, and she would not cut his hair. Later, when Samuel was of mature years, he would need to decide for himself whether to continue in the service of the Lord or not. With Samuel his early dedication continued and the proverb, “Train up a child in the way he should go: and when he is old, he will not depart from it” (Proverbs 22:6) was proven true.

Keeping our Vows

Elkanah went up once a year with all his family to offer the annual sacrifice to the Lord and to fulfill his vow, probably at the Feast of Tabernacles in the fall of the year. We are not told what his vow was but we discern he was a reverent man. He believed, “when thou vowest a vow unto God, defer not to pay it” (Ecclesiastes 5:4). Hannah too had the same commitment; she would pay her vow as soon as Samuel was weaned which would have been about three years of age. She stayed behind with the consent of her husband: “Do what seems best to you … stay here until you have weaned him; only may the LORD make good your word” (1 Samuel 1:23, NIV—a footnote says “your” is the reading in the Dead Sea Scrolls, Septuagint, and Syriac). We too should feel under constraint to pay our vows.

It is hard to grasp what went through Hannah’s mind as she brought her young boy to Eli the priest, knowing she must give him up. Samuel, too, would find it heart-wrenching to leave his mother at such a tender age. We imagine there were both visible weeping and suppressed emotions. Samuel would not have a normal life; Hannah would not be a normal mother. A consecrated life is not normal as the world sees it.

However, the supreme source of Hannah’s joy is not in Samuel but in God who answered her prayer. At the end of the prayer recorded in the second chapter, she includes prophetic testimony: “He [God] will give strength to his king and exalt the horn of his anointed” (1 Samuel 2:10, NIV). Samuel was to have a part in this fulfillment for he would be God’s instrument in anointing both Saul and David in due course. Samuel would form the bridge, the transition from God’s theocracy through judges (deliverers) to God’s theocracy through kings (subordinate rulers). In a sense, Samuel was the last of the judges, although he is also referred to in Scripture as a prophet (Acts 3:24; 13:20). When he delivered the Israelites from the Philistines, he was doing the work of a judge (1 Samuel 7:3,5,13).

Every year Hannah would make the pilgrimage with Elkanah. There she got to visit Samuel, though the visit was short. She gave him a new robe to replace the robe of the previous year. Thus his mother remembered him year by year as he grew. In one visit Eli blessed the parents, “May the Lord give you children,” for having given up Samuel. This prayer was answered with three sons and two daughters. “The blessing of the LORD brings wealth, and he adds no trouble to it” (Proverbs 10:22, NIV). Surely, Hannah was richly repaid for any short-term sorrow she may have felt.

Established as Prophet in Israel

“Samuel continued to grow in stature and in favor with the LORD and with men” (1 Samuel 2:26, NIV). This reminds us of Luke’s comment that Jesus “increased in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and man” (Luke 2:52, NKJV). Such is a sanctified life. Others do notice it.

In chapter three the Lord spoke to Samuel who may have been twelve at this time (Josephus, Antiquities 5, 10, 4). We are informed that in those days the word of the Lord was rarely heard and there were not many visions. Therefore, when the Lord spoke to Samuel, neither he nor Eli immediately recognized that the Lord was calling. Not until the third call did Eli recognize the Lord wanted to communicate with Samuel, and he gave Samuel instruction on how to respond. So it is with us: the Lord wants to communicate his word but we are slow to respond. “Speak, for your servant is listening” (1 Samuel 3:10, NIV). This is the state we get ourselves into when the word of the Lord is rarely heard. We need to read it daily to have its influence current in our lives.

On the fourth call Samuel answered and the Lord told him shocking news unfavorable to Eli and his house. Previously, a man of God had told Eli that his sons and his line would be cut off from being priests because of the sons’ contemptible treatment of the priesthood responsibilities. Now the Lord affirmed this to Samuel, who feared telling Eli such depressing news. Upon Eli’s strong command Samuel told him everything. This was the beginning of Samuel’s career as a prophet of the Lord. All Israel from Dan to Beersheba recognized that Samuel was attested as a prophet, for his words proved true, passing the test of Deuteronomy 18:21,22.

In fulfillment of the prophetic words the Ark was captured in battle, Israel lost thirty thousand foot soldiers, and Phinehas and Hophni, sons of Eli, were killed. The news of the Ark’s capture overcame Eli and he died in a fall at the age of 98. Eli had judged Israel forty years (1 Samuel 4:18).

The Philistines had a bad time with the Ark. First, Dagon was broken in a fall before the Ark. Then the people were afflicted with tumors and disease from an abundance of rats. Moving the Ark to successive cities only proved the supposition that the God of Israel was in the plague on the people, for the plague followed the movement of the Ark.

Established as Judge in Israel

It was thought prudent to send the Ark back to Israel. So the Philistines loaded it onto a new cart, hitched up two untried cows that had recently given birth, added a guilt offering of gold replicas of the tumors and rats, and sent all on their way with no driver. The cows headed straight for Israel, which convinced the Philistine rulers that the possession of the Ark was the cause of the plague. After a short stay in the town of Beth Shemesh, because of the death of seventy citizens on looking into the ark, it was sent to Kirjath-jearim where it was kept for twenty years. It is at this time that Samuel is reintroduced (1 Samuel 7:2,3). He took a reformer’s position and the people rid themselves of their Baals and Ashtaroths, idols that they superstitiously worshipped. They repented and turned to serve the Lord only: “And Samuel judged the children of Israel in Mizpeh” (1 Samuel 7:6).

What followed was a great victory over the Philistines, their long-time oppressors, in answer to prayer. The Lord scared the enemy into panic with loud thunders. The Israelites rushed down from Mizpah, created a great slaughter and recaptured lost territory, even from Ekron to Gath. To memorialize this occasion Samuel took a great stone, set it up where the battle took place, and named it Ebenezer, “stone of help.” The Israelites, when they went that way, would see it and recall the Lord’s help over the Philistines. Many Christians have “Ebenezer” experiences, times we are helpless and the enemy comes in like a flood. We are down, discouraged, and overwhelmed, but then we call on the name of the Lord for help and he responds with a providential leading that restores our hope and confidence in him to give us the victory. At these times we want to set up “stones of help” in our minds, remembrances, so that we recall the Lord’s care and compassionate love as we continue our Christian walk.

Samuel continued to judge Israel all the days of his life and intended that his sons, Joel and Abijah, judge Israel after him. He even appointed them judges when he was old, but they perverted justice and took bribes. Israel clamored for a king, which displeased Samuel and the Lord, but the Lord granted their wish, and after explaining what difficulties life under a king would mean, Samuel was sent to anoint Saul the first king of Israel.

Interactions with King Saul

The narrative continues with the establishment of Saul as king and Samuel’s admonitions to the people not to turn away from the Lord to useless idols but to serve the Lord with all their heart. Samuel’s words were backed up with power, for he called on the Lord to send thunder and rain in the dry season (1 Samuel 12:16-18). Their fearful response is a request for Samuel to pray for them, evidently for forgiveness in asking for a king. We can take Samuel’s reply to our own heart: “Far be it from me that I should sin against the LORD by failing to pray for you. And I will teach you the way that is good and right. But be sure to fear the LORD and serve him faithfully with all your heart; consider what great things he has done for you. Yet if you persist in doing evil, both you and your king will be swept away” (1 Samuel 12:23-25, NIV).

As children of the Lord, we have this same spirit of love for our brethren. We pray to our Father for the success of our fellow believers in prosecuting the Christian walk, that such be not overcome of sin, nor fall into the snare of the devil, but that each keep God and Christ in his focus and not make idols of wealth, amusements, education, career, and self. The duty of every Christian is to teach the way that is good and right and to worship the true King, the giver of every good and perfect gift, to whom should be rendered our greatest thankfulness for his character and benevolence. The Lord will not coerce his people into doing good, but will allow us, if we so choose, to persist in an evil course and to suffer the fruits of unrighteousness.

King Saul

King Saul started out well as humble and obedient, but shortly into his kingship he disobeyed greatly by offering the burnt-offering himself, evidently intending to make the fellowship offering too. Interrupted by the arrival of Samuel, his excuse was he couldn’t wait any longer with the army losing heart and deserting him and the threat of a Philistine attack (1 Samuel 13:8-14). We too need to wait on the Lord in matters that are not our prerogative to do. As a result Samuel had to take a strong position and rebuke Saul. The loss for King Saul was tremendous: “Your kingdom will not endure; the LORD has sought out a man after his own heart and appointed him leader of his people, because you have not kept the LORD’s command” (1 Samuel 13:14, NIV).

Saul persisted in a progressively evil course. His next recorded interaction with Samuel is in chapter 15 where the Lord directed him, through Samuel, to totally destroy the Amalekites for what they did to Israel when they waylaid them as they came up from Egypt: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay, says the Lord” (Romans 12:19, NIV). Saul gathered a great army and wreaked destruction on the Amalekites but disobeyed in sparing Agag their king and the best of the animals. Saul also set up a monument at Carmel in his own honor.

When Samuel caught up with Saul, the confrontation was not friendly. Saul’s first excuse was that the soldiers spared the best of the animals to sacrifice unto the Lord; his second, “I was afraid of the people and so I gave in to them” (1 Samuel 15:24, NIV). It is within this context that we have the oft-quoted words, “Does the LORD delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices as much as in obeying the voice of the LORD? To obey is better than sacrifice, and to heed is better than the fat of rams. For rebellion is like the sin of divination, and arrogance like the evil of idolatry. Because you have rejected the word of the LORD, he has rejected you as king” (1 Samuel 15:22,23). We see that the Lord lays a great premium on obedience; sacrifice is acceptable only when it follows obedience. We are informed that Samuel never visited Saul again, though Samuel mourned for him.

Anointing of David

What follows is Samuel’s anointing of David (chapter 16). Samuel was sent to Bethlehem, where Jesse and his eight sons resided. On seeing the eldest son, who evidently was striking in height and royal bearing, Samuel wrongly thought that this must be the Lord’s choice. But the Lord said, “I have rejected him. The LORD does not look at the things man looks at. Man looks at the outward appearance, but the LORD looks at the heart” (1 Samuel 16:7, NIV). Thankful we are that the Lord looks at the heart: the intentions, the character, and the thoughts. The choice went to the youngest of Jesse’s eight sons: “He was ruddy, with a fine appearance and handsome features” (1 Samuel 16:12, NIV). Few of us possess the physically striking appearance that calls forth respect and submission from our fellow man, but David had not only the fertile heart condition the Lord desired, but also pleasing features that would stand him well in the Lord’s providential development to leadership. With the anointing of David, the spirit of the Lord left Saul. This is the last we read of Samuel until chapter 25 where we are told that Samuel died, and all Israel assembled and mourned for him.

A Faithful Judge

Samuel, a faithful judge of Israel from his youth until his death, a Nazarite all his life, a fully devoted, consecrated man who maintained his zeal and obedience to the Lord and was so recognized by the people. “I have been your leader from my youth until this day. Here I stand. Testify against me in the presence of the LORD and his anointed. Whose ox have I taken? Whose donkey have I taken? Whom have I cheated? Whom have I oppressed? From whose hand have I accepted a bribe to make me shut my eyes? … You have not cheated or oppressed us, they replied. You have not taken anything from anyone’s hand” (1 Samuel 12:2-4, NIV).

Samuel’s faithfulness is attested in Hebrews: “What more shall I say? I do not have time to tell about … Samuel … who through faith … administered justice, and gained what was promised” (Hebrews 11:32,33, NIV). Two aspects of Samuel’s judgeship are here emphasized: his faith in God and his obedience to that faith. Judged victorious, he is now waiting in the sleep of death for the faithful of the Gospel age to also gain the victory of obedience to Yahweh through faithful recognition of our role in Christ. May the memory of Samuel’s faithfulness be an inspiration to us as one of the great cloud of witnesses put forth in the Scriptures for our learning!